Point O’Woods is the oldest continually established summer community on Fire Island and the most beautiful. The area was the site of a venture launched by the Chautauqua Assembly in 1894 to acquire land for its activities. The Assembly, an arm of the Chautaugua Society, set up religious camps as summer retreats around the country, offering discussions of cultural and political topics, lectures and seminars in such various subjects as languages, cooking, photography and physical and spiritual development. The assembly in Point O’ Woods, as it was then called, did well for a time but by 1898 the movement was faltering and the Fire Island property was in debt. Charles W. Hand and William Griffin, who had built homes in the area during its heyday, now assumed the society’s debts and took over the property. In 1898 they formed the Point O’ Woods Association which paid off the debt, began issuing shares in the property and took over the management of the settlement. Thus were the foundations of the present-day community brought into being.
Early on it was determined what sort of community P.O.W. was to be and those standards have been rigorously maintained for nearly 90 years. Foremost among its guiding principles is the importance of family life. Other communities may be regarded as “family-oriented,” but in Point O’Woods that’s not a custom, it’s a rule; no one without children may become a resident. Prospective buyers must be recommended by two existing members, undergo interviews by the real estate committee and be introduced as guests into the community; only after renting for a year does one become eligible to buy a house. This careful screening, plus the emphasis on children, help explain why there are so many third, fourth, even fifth generation families in residence today.
Strictly speaking, no one actually buys land in P.O.W. Newcomers are sold 99 year leases though they do buy their homes. In the 1920s the Association decreed the optimum number of houses to be 128; that number has remained fairly constant. Storms in the early 60s and a disastrous fire in 1983 depleted the housing stock somewhat; the earlier losses were made up by the construction of several modern houses which blend in surprisingly well with the huge, shingled, two and three story ‘cottages’ which are the norm.
Not surprisingly in a community where children come first, heavy emphasis is placed on recreation. The youth program teaches competitive sports and the P.O.W. Yacht Club field’s one of the best sailing forces on the bay. Swimming lessons are automatic, lifeguard protection a matter of course. The community center hosts dances and other activities for teenagers. Church attendance at interdenominational Protestant services Sunday mornings is a key part of town life.
P.O.W.’s tiny commercial center includes a grocery, candy shop and post office, all for residents only; there is no liquor store. The island’s only railroad runs from the ferry dock to the Club at the ocean, the community’s only hostelry and (private) restaurant. Despite the fence running along the western border, which is strongly objected to by everyone, Point O’Woods is accessible from the ocean and visitors are welcome to walk through the community, provided they respect private property. Such a tour is well worth it; unlike most communities, P.O.W. is not laid out on grid and the streets, running at odd angles or gentle curves, take you past areas of lush undergrowth and towering trees with impressive, old fashioned and immense beach houses nearly hidden from view. Most of Point O’Woods embodies the look and feel of a 1890s shore resort.
This of course is what its residents want it to be, to keep intact its own way of life. Stability and continuity is what the very structure of Point O’Woods is designed to insure. The P.O.W. Association owns everything in town: the land, the buildings, the dock, the ferry, the stores and utilities.